Jonathan Smith, Public Sector Business Unit Leader at Konica Minolta Business Solutions (UK) Ltd

With the staggered return of students to schools and colleges in England in recent weeks and a wider return later this year, there is still great debate over how education facilities can reopen safely following COVID-19.

One thing is for sure, the ‘new normal’ will need careful consideration to ensure both students and staff are able to balance educational needs with safety, something which technology is very well placed to assist with.

Unforeseen changes

Nobody planning the academic year for 2020/21 could have foreseen the seismic change that the global pandemic would bring to schools, colleges, and universities. Equally, plastic barriers, remote communications solutions and technology designed to measure the temperature of people entering educational sites were probably not high on the wish list but have since become a priority purchase. 

With only the children of essential workers or those at risk able to attend schools since the COVID-19 restrictions first came into place in March, it has been a huge challenge for educators to communicate with, and effectively educate, students remotely. The need to replace classroom working with remote sessions has underlined both the suitability and shortcomings of the technology available.

It has become clear that online learning applications, secure file sharing and the availability of suitable hardware (both portable devices and a good online connection) need to be up to the task to support both students and staff.

Putting safety first

Undoubtedly the Government and educators are in firm agreement that the education of students has suffered during the COVID-19 restrictions. However, there has definitely been a divergence of opinion when it comes to the suitable timetable for a return to ‘normal’ education provision.

When the Government initially suggested a phased return from June 2020 onwards, nine teaching unions (including the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers) put forward a joint statement questioning the safety of both students and staff so quickly after the restrictions had been in place.

Whilst efforts are taking place to address concerns (by implementing a national track and trace system to identify carriers and help stem a second wave of infections), establishments can already invest in intelligent thermal imaging video solutions to complement this.

Low cost and easy to install, these cameras are positioned at primary entry points within the site, immediately detecting any individual with a suspiciously high temperature, one of the key symptoms of COVID-19.

Implementation and rapid operations are straightforward too, with many schools, colleges, and universities already familiar with the technology from its use in security. These systems are very well placed to ensure safety too, something which has been well proven at other high footfall sites such as airports and sports stadiums, where they are employed to ensure crowd management and safety.

Planning for a different future

As many schools, colleges and universities had to delay their technology projects earlier this year, and the looming Summer break being a key time to invest and plan for the upcoming new academic year, there is an increased pressure on technology managers to ensure their vital budgets are spent wisely.  

In many cases remote learning has been highly successful in enabling core teaching, so it seems likely that many schools, colleges and universities will look to invest further in this (especially with the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the near future). Moving forwards, the IT infrastructure needs to be reliable and flexible, to adapt to a rapidly evolving educational landscape.

Having a flexible IT approach means that educators and students can continue with fewer disruptions and a greater degree of certainty, even if there is a second wave of COVID-19 restrictions. Distance learning solutions, which may have been considered temporary earlier this year, will need a solid IT infrastructure to support them, including reliable backup facilities and rapid deployment whenever and wherever they are required.

Educational institutions also need to have highly effective critical communications in place to contact students/parents and staff at a moment’s notice, to match the pace of developments – for example, changes to timetabling or extensions to remote working if restrictions need to be tightened. If these rapid communication dissemination systems are not in place already, it would be worth considering cost-effective solutions such as a mass SMS system to ensure everyone is immediately aware.  

Even as schools, colleges and universities look at their long-term plans to reopen facilities, there will still be strict rules in place to help minimise and control the potential spread of a resurgent COVID-19. By extending the use of remote education systems, which already provide the advantage of lessened physical contact, it is also easier to continue social distancing onsite as well. In many cases, ICT managers could well find that their budgets are better spent on mobile solutions which empower staff and students, rather than investing purely in classroom-based technology.

Technology that evolves with events

Most of us have had to embrace and use online alternatives to meet social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for many people this has highlighted the considerable benefits in practicality whilst enabling greater safety from infection. In the education world this increased use of highly flexible technology is just an accelerated evolution of teaching methods that were changing anyway.

Clearly though, it is essential that the education sector ensures its technology investments take into consideration the lessons learnt during the COVID-19 restrictions. Flexible technology provides much greater scope in terms of teaching, even during extraordinary circumstances such as those we have seen in 2020. It has also proven to be a key component in ensuring greater safety as well.

We are all living in the ‘new normal’ already, but the expertise and tools are available to ensure we are all better prepared for unexpected changes moving forwards.

Jonathan Smith, Public Sector Business Unit Leader at Konica Minolta Business Solutions (UK) Ltd

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